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Data journalism: what is its role?

Data journalism: what is its role?

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Paul Hoffman, a third-year student at George Washington University and a journalism enthusiast, is interning for the Editors Weblog. Here he gives his thoughts on how data journalism may play a role in newsrooms.

When I first read that Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, predicted that data analysis will be the key tool for the future of journalism, I was slightly demoralized, thinking that journalism is transforming from an art to a science.  After all, writing to me has always been an outlet for creativity and expression, so I viewed the Web mogul's hypothesis as a degradation of journalism, that reporters would become too bogged down in numbers, data sets, and statistics and forget the big picture, the human element of stories.  I mean, what do you think when you read a quote from Charles Arthur's article in The Guardian saying that Berners-Lee deems it necessary for successful journalists of the future to "know their CSV from their RDF, throw together some quick MySQL queries for a PHP or Python output"?

However, I soon realized that I was the one who had failed to analyze the big picture.  The overarching question we must ask ourselves is, "What is the role of journalism?" Berners-Lee believes it is the press' responsibility to hold the government, or anyone else for that matter, responsible for their actions, and I have to agree with him.  My initial disappointment with his claim that journalists need to be "data-savvy" and highly competent with advanced data analysis software was that numbers alone cannot tell a story.  Hunter S. Thompson, father of Gonzo journalism, once said in an interview with The Atlantic, "I don't get any satisfaction out of the old traditional journalist's view: 'I just covered the story.  I just gave it a balanced view.'  Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long.  You can't be objective about Nixon."

As I mulled over both perspectives, I came to understand that both men were right.  Without Berners-Lee's school of thought aligned with hard facts, articles lack credibility and instead become reporters' feeble opinions.  Thompson's notion of journalism was that it was a powerful forum to challenge unjust governments.  But in order to convince the public that politicians are implementing detrimental policies, data is imperative.

We like to think that in our "global" society, we know everything going on around the world.  After all, we have the Internet, cell phones, and quick modes of transportation.  But perhaps we are overconfident about our knowledge of current global events.  Look at the war in Afghanistan.  Stop for a minute and ask yourself, "How much detailed information do I know about the war?  How many troops have died since its beginning? How many troops have died since Obama escalated the number in troops?  Can I provide any numerical evidence for the surge's effect on the war?"

Newsweek reported that during President Obama's presidential campaign, he promised to send about 10,000 more troops to Afghanistan.  However, once elected, he sent 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in February 2009 and an additional 30,000 U.S. troops in December 2009, bringing the total up to 100,000.  It is a fact that he failed to follow his campaign promise, but many might not necessarily view that act as unforgivable if his military surge proves successful.  The natural question thus remains, "How can we, the public, understand the effects of Obama's martial policies?"  Surely, we can't base all of our information on Obama's and his cabinet's speeches.  We need third party, qualitative data so that we can properly debate each other and vote responsibly.

Simon Rogers, data news specialist for the Guardian, posted an interesting article explaining exactly how the newspaper's team of investigative data-based journalists made sense of the poorly formatted and cursory Excel file they received from WikiLeaks' infamous Afghanistan war logs - which contained over 92,201 rows of data. The reporters' aim was to analyze a key issue regarding the war: "the rise in IED (improvised explosive device) attacks - home-made roadside bombs which are unpredictable and impossible to fight" and to compare these explosions or ambushes "(an ambush is where the attack is combined with, for example, small arms fire or rocket grenades)" with the number of IEDs being found and cleared over time. 

Certainly, this data plays a vital role in informing the public about the truths of the Afghanistan war.  One graph, which shows the number of IEDs exploded versus the number of IEDs cleared over time, importantly marks several events such as the U.S. 2009 surges.  By comparing the data with Obama's tactics, we can make much more legitimate arguments about whether we should support or reject the President's foreign policies and ability to act as Commander in Chief.

Still, it is important to note that "data journalism" might not be as groundbreaking as Berners-Lee makes it seem.  One comment under Rogers' article writes, "Should the Guardian be trumpeting its success at logistical donkey work?  This is the kind of work the takes place in accountancy (to name but one industry) offices throughout the country daily," and another comment says, "hype or what its only a spreadsheet."  These comments definitely deserve recognition, for while the increasing utilization of large datasets is pivotal to informing the public about massive issues such as the war in Afghanistan, the method of data analysis must not be exaggerated to seem revolutionary.  Rather, there seems to be a greater awareness of and improvement in journalists' ability to interpret data, as evidenced, for example, by City University of London's new Interactive Journalism MA and the emergence of other similar courses throughout journalism schools.

As Guardian journalist Roy Greenslade wrote in July, "The emerging form of disclosure through the internet, pioneered so successfully in the past couple of years by Wikileaks, deserves our praise and needs to be defended against the reactionary forces that seek to avoid exposure."

So perhaps Hunter S. Thompson's legacy is not only still alive, but is even on the rise, just in a different form.  Rather than drawing the public's attention to heinous policies imposed by our own elected officials through shocking language and creative, first-person narratives, journalists are still exposing truths hidden by the government, this time through shocking data.

Paul, a third-year student at George Washington University and journalism enthusiast, is interning for the Editors Weblog.


Dean Roper's picture

Dean Roper


2010-11-26 16:08